Thursday, 13 October 2016

The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1978-1984: A Graphic Memoir by Riad Sattouf Review

This is the first part of Riad Sattouf’s childhood memoirs, The Arab of the Future, and it is superb! With a Syrian father and French mother, the small family travels across Europe as his father gets work as an associate professor in Tripoli, Libya, during Gaddafi’s reign, before briefly jumping to Brittany, France, and ending up in nightmarish Syria under Hafez al- Assad.

Sattouf doesn’t do anything particularly special with his style of storytelling, either literally or visually, he just tells it straightforwardly but he does it so well. He’s a natural storyteller who’s perfectly suited to the comics medium and that makes reading this such a joy. 

As you would expect, it’s mostly focused on Riad and his family but we also learn what life was like in these countries at the time as well. For example Libya under Gaddafi where housing was free to all - like a bizarre game of finders keepers, you found somewhere that was empty and moved in! - and the basic foods that were doled out to everyone because supermarkets didn’t exist. It was a third world country and, reading the excerpts from Gaddafi’s Green Book here, it’s easy to see why conditions were so bad when this lunatic was running the show! 

Riad’s father, Abdul-Razak, is the star of this book. Riad writes him as a complex but real person. The only educated member of his Syrian family, he comes across as charming, funny, eccentric, bull-headed, tragic, conflicted, and strict. He certainly seems to come down on Riad quite heavily for not being able to read or wanting to learn despite his son being 3 years old at the time! Once the narrative shifts to Syria though you understand why his father is this way - THIS is where he grew up? Woah. 

Libya looked bad but Syria is far, far worse. It’s interesting to see Arab culture from the inside where men and women live in the same houses but occupy different rooms - the women eat the men’s leftovers at dinner. What a country though - roving street gangs of kids attacking anything in sight, people literally living in dirt, garbage being sold in the market, no working street lights or even paved roads or pavement. 

Be warned: there is graphic abuse of animals in this book. A donkey is beaten and a puppy is tortured and killed for entertainment. That was difficult to read – anyone who hurts animals for fun is sick. There are some countries I know I’ll never visit in my life and Syria is definitely one of them. If you didn’t see kids joyriding their dads’ cars, it’d be like time-travelling back to the Middle Ages! 

There are lots of wonderful little details sprinkled throughout that add so much to the narrative: Riad’s Syrian uncle visiting them in Brittany but being afraid of the sea so he kept his back to it all the time, and Riad’s lecherous French grandfather who used Riad to try picking up ladies, are just two of them. 

The Arab of the Future is a fantastic memoir that’s both informative and enjoyable and full of great scenes and unique personalities. I loved reading it and can’t recommend it highly enough - really looking forward to picking up the recently released second volume!

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